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Look Up! Venus Will Be Bright and a Little Strange Tonight

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Look at the sky just after sunset tonight, January 12, and you’re guaranteed to know immediately which point of light is Venus. Hint: It will be the astonishingly bright one. Now get your telescope. As the planet arrives at its greatest angular distance to the east of the Sun, you won’t be able to see surface features, as you sometimes can when looking at Mars, or identify stunning cloud swirls as you might see when viewing Jupiter, because Venus’s thick and unforgiving clouds conceal the planet’s mountains below. But with the help of a telescope, you’ll be able to see that Venus doesn't appear to be a full circle.

Here's why: it's at greatest eastern elongation tonight. What's that? Elongation is the angle between the planet and the Sun from Earth. To understand elongation, point at the Sun as it sets. With your other hand, point at Venus. Simply put, the angle that your arms make is the elongation. Because planets are ever in motion and orbiting at speeds different from one another, that angle is ever in flux. Repeat this process in March and you’ll notice a big difference in the directions of your arms.

The largest this angle will ever get in an orbit is its greatest elongation. When greatest elongation occurs at sunset, it’s said to be at greatest eastern elongation. That's what we have tonight. When it occurs at sunrise, it is at greatest western elongation. For Venus, that will occur this year in June.

Elongation was crucial to Copernicus when he was trying to construct a heliocentric model of the solar system. He determined the order and size of the orbits of the planets he could see by measuring their respective elongations. Venus will never have an elongation greater than 47.1 degrees. But what about Mars? The angle between the Sun and Mars when seen from Earth can reach all the way to 180 degrees. The same goes for Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and so-called Planet X, though the latter four weren’t known in Copernicus’s time.

If a planet can be on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, its orbital path around the Sun is, by definition, outside of Earth’s orbit. Located inside Earth's orbit, Venus and Mercury are called “inferior planets.” Located outside, Mars and the rest are called “superior planets.” When a superior planet is 180 degrees from the Sun from the vantage point of Earth, it is said to be at opposition. That is, a straight line is formed—Sun, Earth, planet—and that planet is in full sunlight. This is also the best time to observe such a planet.

A snapshot of the inner solar system generated by jsOrrery; the approximate line illustrates the effect of greatest elongation on Venus. Image Credit: David W. Brown

 
Take a look at the illustration above. At greatest elongation, a line drawn from Earth to an inferior planet will be tangent to the planet’s orbital path around the Sun. (The line will touch the orbital path, but not cross it.) Because we’re staring at this dead-on, half the planet is in full sunlight, and half is in total darkness. That’s why tonight Venus appears half-lit, and seemingly not a full circle.

So enjoy this special phase of Venus, and keep an eye on the evening sky this month for another Venus-related event—on January 31, Venus, Mars, and the sliver of a new moon will appear clustered together, forming a stunning triangle.

Editor's note: Due to an editing error, the original post referred to Venus both as a star and a planet. Of course, it's a planet. 

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Space
Here's Where You Can Watch a Livestream of Cassini's Final Moments
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It's been a road trip like no other. After seven years and 2.2 billion miles, the NASA orbiter Cassini finally arrived at the Saturn system on June 30, 2004. Ever since, it's been capturing and transmitting valuable data about the distant environment. From sending the Huygens probe to land on the moon Titan to witnessing hurricanes on both of the planet's poles, Cassini has informed more than 3000 scientific papers.

It's been as impressive a mission as any spacecraft has ever undertaken. And tomorrow, Cassini will perform one last feat: sacrificing itself to Saturn's intense atmosphere. Project scientists are deliberately plunging it into the planet in order to secure just a little more data—and to keep the spacecraft, which is running low on fuel, from one day colliding with a Saturnian moon that might harbor life.

Because it won't have time to store anything on its hard drive, Cassini will livestream its blaze of glory via NASA. The information will be composed mostly of measurements, since pictures would take too long to send. Instead, we'll get data about Saturn's magnetic field and the composition of its dust and gas.

"As we fly through the atmosphere, we are able to literally scoop up some molecules, and from those we can figure out the ground truth in Saturn’s atmosphere," Scott Edgington, a Cassini project scientist, told New Scientist. "Just like almost everything else in this mission, I expect to be completely surprised."

The action will kick off at 7 a.m. EDT on Friday, September 15. Scientists expect to say goodbye to Cassini less than an hour later. 

While you wait for Cassini's grand finale, you can check out some essential facts we've rounded up from Saturn experts. And keep your eyes peeled for a full recap of Cassini’s historic journey: Mental Floss will be in the control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to offer a firsthand account of the craft's final moments in space. 

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Big Questions
What Are the Northern Lights?
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Over the centuries, many have gazed up at one of the Earth’s most fascinatingly beautiful natural wonders: the Northern Lights. In the past couple of weeks, some lucky American stargazers have gotten the chance to see them from their very own backyards—and could again this week, according to Thrillist. But what are they?

Before science was able to get a read on what exactly was happening in the night sky, ancient tribes had their own theories for what caused the jaw-dropping light show. Many early beliefs had roots in religion, such as that the light was a pathway souls traveled to reach heaven (Eskimo tribes) or that the light was an eternal battle of dead warriors (Middle-Age Europe). Early researchers were a bit more reasonable in their approximations, and most surrounded the idea of the reflection of sunlight off the ice caps. In 1619, Galileo Galilei named the lights the aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning, after concluding they were a product of sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere.

Today, scientists have come to the general agreement that the lights are caused by the collision of electrically charged solar particles and atoms from our atmosphere. The energy from the collisions is released as light, and the reason it happens around the poles is because that's where the Earth’s magnetic field is the strongest. In 2008, a team at UCLA concluded that “when two magnetic field lines come close together due to the storage of energy from the sun, a critical limit is reached and the magnetic field lines reconnect, causing magnetic energy to be transformed into kinetic energy and heat. Energy is released, and the plasma is accelerated, producing accelerated electrons.”

"Our data show clearly and for the first time that magnetic reconnection is the trigger," said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a UCLA professor of Earth and Space Sciences. "Reconnection results in a slingshot acceleration of waves and plasma along magnetic field lines, lighting up the aurora underneath even before the near-Earth space has had a chance to respond. We are providing the evidence that this is happening."

The best time to see the Northern Lights is during the winter, due to the Earth’s position in relation to the sun (shorter days means darker night skies). And by the way, it’s not just the North Pole that puts on a show—there are Southern Lights, too. There are also aurora borealis on other planets—including Mars—so rest assured that future generations born “abroad” will not miss out on this spectacular feat of nature.

Haven’t seen them yet? Traditionally, the best places to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights are in Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska. Maybe you'll get lucky this week and sneak a peek from your very own window. Check out Aurorasaurus for regular updates on where they are showing.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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